Those who know me know that I absolutely adore animals. So it was such a delight to be able to visit the fantastic Lakota Wolf Preserve in Columbia, NJ this past Sunday. There really aren’t any opportunities to see wolves when one is living in NYC, and it’s even rarer to be able to see sixteen of them all in one place. Fortunately, the Lakota Wolf Preserve offers you the opportunity to do just that. And if you’re lucky, you’ll even get to hear all sixteen of them howl together!
About the Lakota Wolf Preserve
The Lakota Wolf Preserve is situated on 10 acres of land at the Camp Taylor Campground in Columbia, NJ. It’s owned and operated by a married couple, Jim Stein and Becky Mace, who have rescued, raised, and cared for all the wolves at the preserve. Wolves are endangered in the wild, having been driven out of most of their natural habitats by humans. At present, it is illegal to take a wild wolf and place it into captivity, and it’s also illegal to take a captive-bred wolf and try to release it into the wild.
As such, there are many wolves that have been born in captivity who have made their way into road-side zoos or attractions or into the homes of people (who shouldn’t be trying to keep them as pets!) that can’t properly care for the wolves. Over the past 20+ years, Jim and Becky have rescued some of these animals in order to give them a better home to live out their lives, with lots to eat and plenty of room to roam.
The Lakota Wolf Preserve is a 501c3 non-profit organization, and they are able to care for the wolves through donations and sponsorships, but they also make money to care for the wolves through photography tours and their popular “wolf watch” tours, the latter of which is what we did on Sunday.
Getting to the Lakota Wolf Preserve
If you’d like to visit the Lakota Wolf Preserve, note that you can’t just show up and visit the wolves anytime you want. The Wolf Watch Tour is the easiest (and least expensive) option for meeting the wolves, and the preserve offers these tours twice a day, four days a week in the wintertime. If you want to take the tour on a weekday, you’ll need to make a reservation. Otherwise, you can just show up on a Saturday or Sunday if you want to join the tour.
The Lakota Wolf Preserve asks that you arrive a half hour before your preferred tour time. You’ll need to register for the tour at the campground’s office and gift shop and get a parking pass, which you’ll leave displayed in your car while on the tour. Though the campground manages the property, they’re not really affiliated with the preserve so you should refer to the website or call the preserve directly if you have any questions about visiting or if you need to make a weekday reservation.
It was a beautiful but cold day when we visited. Sunny and high 30s, but the campground had received several inches of snow the day before. As such, the shuttle that would normally be available to drive us up the hill to the preserve was not in service, as it wouldn’t be able to navigate the road in the ice and snow. That meant we had to hike uphill for about half a mile before reaching the wolves.
If you or anyone in your party isn’t very physically mobile, check the preserve’s website or call the day of your tour to check on the status of the shuttle. I suspect that it may also be out of operation after a heavy downpour in the summertime since the trail is basically a dirt road. For what it’s worth, if you want, you can still walk the trail even if the shuttle is running. I’d just highly recommend wearing boots if you visit after a rain or snowfall, and all you need to do is follow the wolf paw markers up the hill.
The trail is actually quite beautiful, and it got our blood pumping and our bodies nice and toasty as we worked our way uphill. We admired the cute cabins at the campground, as well as the pretty little pond that was partially frozen over. The campgrounds are probably beautiful in the summertime, but if you want to visit the wolves, winter is the time to do it!
Meeting the Wolves
Once we reached the top of the hill, we found ourselves at a double-fenced enclosure, separated by a gate and walkway through the middle. Altogether, there are four separate pens at the preserve, each with its own wolf pack. Before the tour even started, we were able to walk along the front fence where several wolves were already wandering around. Clearly, they know that the arrival of people means that Jim and Becky are on their way (and they bring the treats!)
Jim arrived and started our 3:00 pm tour right on time. They took our tickets at the gate and we walked up the middle walkway between two packs of timber wolves, which we learned are a sub-species of the gray wolf. Further up the walkway, we encountered two more types of gray wolves, some arctic wolves on one side and British Columbian wolves on the other.
As Jim walked by the fence, he tossed in little pieces of beef liver as a treat for the wolves. And it was also a treat for us because the livers brought the wolves over closer to the fence so that we could admire them. There was such a variety in the color of their fur. Some were white as the snow on the ground and others were nearly all black. Several were a mix of brown and gray. All of them were stunning!
But they’re definitely not very big animals. Jim mentioned that they typically weigh around 100 pounds and though they’ll look larger in the winter, it’s really only the extra fur and undercoat they grow for the colder months that make them look big and fluffy. If you visit the wolves again in the summertime, don’t be alarmed if they look a little scrawny. That’s their normal size – they just don’t have all the fur in the summer once they shed it all off in the spring.
And part of the reason they aren’t actually scrawny is that they’re eating about 3 pounds of meat every day, most of which is deer meat. The preserve has to buy some meat to keep up with the wolves’ needs, but they’ll also get calls from the police or road workers to pick up a deer that has been hit by a car or they’ll receive deer that have been donated by local farmers or hunters.
When feeding the wolves a whole deer, Jim removes the antlers so the wolves don’t hurt themselves while fighting over the carcass, and he also removes the stomach and intestines which can carry bacteria and parasites. After that, he leaves the rest to the wolves who will eat the entire thing in less than a half hour, leaving only the teeth and jaw behind. (That’s the toughest part of the deer, and even though wolves can apply about 1,700 pounds of pressure through their bite, they still won’t bother with deer teeth!)
At present, there are 16 wolves at the Lakota Wolf Preserve. They’re capped at 24 at the preserve, but Jim and Becky want the wolves to have plenty of room to roam. About 20 years ago, their wolves gave birth to 17 puppies, which Jim and Becky had to bottle-feed, a task which took 2 hours complete and needed to be done every four hours!
They were only able to keep six of those wolves and the rest have been donated to other wolf preserves in order to continue to preserve this endangered species and educate the public about these beautiful and fascinating creatures.
Now, the wolves at Lakota are fixed so that they’re unable to breed, and if the preserve ever needs to acquire more wolves, they will adopt puppies from other preserves or rescue them from other situations where they may have been bred in captivity but can no longer be cared for.
As long as the wolves are introduced to a pack as puppies, they’ll typically be accepted into that pack and can live harmoniously with the rest of the wolves at the preserve. And, to be honest, the Lakota wolves looked pretty happy – several were playing together and more than one was caught romping in the snow! They must be in heaven with the cold and snow right now.
Currently, the youngest wolves at the preserve are just 8 months old, and the oldest are 12 years old. Recently, they lost the oldest wolf they’ve ever had who died at the age of 17 years and 7 months. Pretty good considering most wolves in captivity only live for about 12-14 years. And really good considering wolves in the wild don’t often live past seven years old.
Before leaving the enclosure, Jim explained a bit about why wolves howl. For the most part, it’s to rally the pack, such as before or after a hunt or to warn off other packs that may be encroaching on their territory. Each wolf has its own distinct “voice”, and the other wolves can recognize the voices of each of the wolves in their pack so that they know who is there and that everyone is safe.
They can also change the tone of their voice when they feel threatened by a predator or another pack so that it seems as though there are actually more wolves present than there really are. But when they all get going together, it is nothing short of magical and will leave you with chills. Becky started calling a couple of the wolves’ names and before long, they were all howling together. Our whole group fell silent and looked around at each of the wolves as they took turns howling to their packs.
Other Furry Friends at the Lakota Wolf Preserve
After visiting the wolves, we were able to meet a few of the other animals that Jim and Becky care for at the Lakota Wolf Preserve. In the first enclosure, there were two red foxes named Ella and Jasper. Ella didn’t want to have anything to do with us until Becky through her a raw egg as a treat. Jasper, however, was very busy roaming all around, begging for treats and taking his own egg and hiding it behind a tree! It was hard to get a good photo of him because he wouldn’t stop moving.
We were also introduced to Sienna and Logan, which are a bobcat and lynx respectively. Sienna was quite the ham, showing off how cute she was as she tapped Becky’s shoulder to ask for a treat (chicken hearts, in her case). As cute as she was, though, Becky warned us that you should never be fooled by them because a 25-pound bobcat is perfectly capable of taking down a 10-point buck! In other words, if you see one out in the woods, back up and give it space. “Here kitty, kitty” isn’t going to help you make friends with one of these little guys!
Logan was a bit more reserved, though we learned that he had recently recovered from surgery after swallowing part of a toy that had broken off and created a blockage in his stomach. He seemed no worse for the wear, though, when we saw him, and he and Sienna pounced at each other a few times while Becky was talking.
They’re all beautiful animals, and it was a bonus to meet them, but the wolves really are the main event at the Lakota Wolf Preserve. Just like at The Wilds, which we visited on our road trip through Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia this past summer, the animals at Lakota are well cared for, and Jim and Becky’s passion for preserving and protecting these animals was evident. None of the animals cowered from them and all seemed well-groomed and in good condition, another sign that they’re doing something right there.
Getting to see these magnificent wolves and hearing them howl was such a spectacular experience, and one I certainly won’t soon forget. If you would like an opportunity to see (and hear!) these majestic animals yourself, check out the Lakota Wolf Preserve’s website and plan your own tour soon. If possible, try to go before winter ends so that you’ll see the wolves in their beautiful winter coats.
And if you do visit the preserve yourself sometime soon, stop back and let me know what you thought!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Lakota Wolf Preserve: 89 Mt Pleasant Road, Columbia NJ 07832
- The preserve is located at the Camp Taylor Campground. You’ll need to check in at the office by the parking lot to pay for the tour and get a parking pass, which must be displayed in your car.
When to Go
- The Lakota Wolf Preserve is open year-round, but the best time of year to visit is late fall through early spring.
- Winter tours take place twice a day at 10:30 am and 3:00 pm from Thursday to Sunday and last up to 90 minutes.
Tips for Visiting
- The preserve isn’t open to the public other than during their scheduled tours, so be sure you check the tour schedule and arrive about 30 minutes before the tour to check in.
- Reservations are not needed on Saturdays and Sundays, but you do need a reservation for weekday tours or if you intend to bring a group of 10 or more people. You can call 908-496-9244 to make a reservation.
- Winter is the best time to visit the wolves if you want to see them looking their best! They grow thick, beautiful winter coats, and they’re much happier and more active in the colder weather, too!
- To access the preserve, you can either hike uphill for about half a mile or take their shuttle. Note that in the winter, the shuttle may not be available due to snow and ice, and hiking is the only way to access the preserve. You can check the preserve’s website or call 908-496-9244 on the preferred day of your tour to confirm whether the shuttle will be available.
- No pets are permitted at the preserve. Don’t bring them, and definitely don’t leave them in your car!
- If you bring your children, be sure to keep a close eye on them. If your children (or you!) are caught throwing anything in or near the enclosures, your entire family will be asked to leave in order to ensure the safety of the animals. You’re also not permitted to smoke on the tour or leave behind any cigarette butts, which are extremely toxic to the wolves.
- If you’re hoping to capture some photos of the wolves, be aware that you’ll be photographing them through two layers of fencing. The only way to get unobstructed views of the wolves is to sign up for one of the preserve’s special photography tours. The public is never permitted to enter the enclosures with the wolves, but you will be able to shoot photos through a larger opening in the fence without anything obstructing your view.